Start Where You Are

The first time my second daughter began to read To Kill a Mockingbird, she gave up within ten pages. She was in the fifth grade. The reading was so difficult that she got no pleasure from it. When she read it last year, in the 7th grade, she loved it.


When we started the homeschooling, my first daughter was reading The Great Gatsby and my second daughter was reading Rebecca. (Both were thrilled with their choices, but neither had much interest in the other’s.) When they finished, I was thinking about what to suggest next. I wanted them to read the same book so our literature class would be more focused than it had been. I’d told a friend that my first daughter had loved a YA historical novel set at turn of the century, and my friend said why not Edith Wharton.

The plot of The Buccaneers seems perfect for 14-year-olds: a coterie of friends of differing temperaments and sensibilities poised at the brink of making life’s big decisions.

But my daughters wanted to start reading right away, and we couldn’t find The Buccaneers at any of the local bookstores, neither chain nor independent nor used. Not even our library had a copy. I’d loaned mine out and you know how that goes. We chose The Age of Innocence instead. 

Almost immediately, my second daughter said it was too hard. My first daughter agreed it was hard, but was willing to persevere. For two weeks, my second daughter lagged behind in her reading. Then, realizing her sister had left her in the dust, she buckled down to the task. This was two days ago.

As I was making dinner tonight, she showed me how few pages she had left to read (that would be three). In two days, she’d read more than 180 pages.

Me: What happened?

Second Daughter: I started liking it, and then I liked it so much I couldn’t stop.
This happened to me with Moby Dick, though I was a much later bloomer. I’d tried to read it many times, from high school onward, but wasn’t able to get past the first chapter (which is very unusual for me, I hate quitting a book, it just feels wrong) until I was nearly 30 and in grad school. Why? I have no idea. Maybe I was immature. Maybe it is simply that I would have loved it if I had persisted.

These matters sound little, but they are the matters that make up reading. What do we do when the text is just too difficult? How can we tell when the difficulty may be overcome once the reader is engaged, or whether the student needs to develop the muscles for the heavy lifting? If the latter, what’s the best way to nudge the student into gaining skills and yet not push so hard that the student becomes discouraged?

I’ve talked previously about my remedial community college students, how some were surpassed by 4th graders when it came to writing skills. Ditto reading. It was a challenge. 

I tried to go at the problem in different ways. We read a lot in class. I assigned an anthology of short short fiction (Sudden Fiction) which they liked and actually did read. I often brought in copies of articles and essays from newspapers and magazines on topics that I thought they might like: “The Ways We Lie” by Stephanie Ericsson, “On Dumpster Diving” by Lars Eighner, “Starting Over with God” by Douglas Coupland, “Bet with America” by William “Upski” Wimsatt. I brought in stories by great writers who were also my friends: “Close Calls” by Josh Schneyer, “New Pants” by Jervey Tervalon, “Someone’s Got Cold Feet” by Kia Penso.

Most of my students worked hard. Much of the reading was neither easy nor natural to them; Carol Jago talks about how we need to talk with students about working at reading and teach them how to persist in the face of polysyllabic words and complex syntax. Nor did we begin with what was most difficult–we started where they were.

And how should this relate to assessment? A friend (who’s been in the business long enough and at enough different companies to see trends whisk in and fade away) and I were talking today about rigor and the Common Core Standards and how the standards require what many students simply aren’t capable of. Yet. I certainly don’t mean never. I just mean their skills need to get stronger. We wonder how states are going to address this problem.

We can’t develop sophisticated rigorous tests that all but the top ten percent will fail. We can’t develop simple less demanding tests that all but the lowest ten percent will pass. 

And yet we must expect more from our students in order that they develop the skills they’ll need as adults, one of those skills simply being that of keeping at it even when it is hard to do.




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